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Area Republicans, Escondido Democratic Mayor, Vote to Expand Highways

REGION — San Diego County has quickly turned blue as Democrats sweep up more city and county elected office seats.

But the packed room at the Sept. 26 San Diego Association of Governments Board of Directors meeting showed that, despite being on the wane, the Republican party still has some muscles. It got help from a recently elected prominent area Democrat, as well.

The issue on the table was the 2020 Capital Improvement Program $593.3 million budget. The budget planted some of the first seeds for creating the infrastructure of what SANDAG has called the “5 Big Moves,” a series of five steps that the regional agency foresees as planting the seeds of a robust countywide mass public transit system.

But as has been the case since SANDAG first proposed the concept, the budget debate displayed a division between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of highway expansion versus a more exacting focus on mass transit. Depicting that divide, Poway’s Republican Mayor Steve Vaus and Escondido Democratic Mayor Paul McNamara — a former Republican who has often sided with SANDAG’s Republican leaders — introduced their own amended budget.

And though that budget went unvetted by SANDAG’s staff for regulatory or legal compliance, it passed by a count of 11-7.

With Chula Vista’s Democratic Mayor Mary Salas abstaining, Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara was the only Democratic “yes” vote. And with San Diego’s Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer voting in favor of the amended budget proposal, and Salas abstaining, it meant three of the four largest jurisdictions were not eligible to vote against the measure via for the “weighted voting” system put into place after the passage of AB 805. And so, a weighted vote did not take place and the initial vote held.

The Vaus-McNamara amendments nullifies the proposal to convert high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on Interstate Highway 5 into express lands. And it also calls for a prioritization of capital expenditures to construct operational improvements on state highway 52, while putting money into studying doing so for the 67 and 78. Further, the amendments called for design improvements on the 5/78 and 15/78 interchanges.

Though the original proposal got about an hour and 20 minutes of public comments, it got only a few minutes of SANDAG board discussion before Vaus introduced the alternative proposal. The one member who did speak to the proposal, before the Vaus introduction, brought up the issue of climate change.

“We need to plan for the future, but we need to make sure there is a future to plan for,” said Carlsbad City Councilwoman Cori Schumacher. “And so, we need to be attentive to climate change and what we need to do moving forward.”

Before punching his vote for the amended budget, McNamara said that he believes less congestion on the county’s highways will lead to less greenhouse gas emissions. He also said he does not think he will be alive by the time the “5 Big Moves” comes to fruition.

“So, you want to reduce greenhouse gases? Well you’ve got to get the cars moving,” said McNamara. “Or we could do something draconian and say you’re not going to San Diego city unless you’re driving an electric car. I mean, we could do that. But this is crazy. I don’t think I’ll be alive when the public transit system is complete.”

SANDAG Director Hasan Ikhrata had earlier stated that he believes that the alternative budget could create greenhouse gas emissions, in turn placing the county and the agency in “legal jeopardy.”

“I will guarantee you that if we build these projects … this will increase vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gases,” he said.

Responding, McNamara accused Ikhrata of acting akin to akin to a “Mayor of San Diego County for Transportation” and of creating “scare tactic without really any basis in fact” on the legal question. In the aftermath of the hearing, McNamara appeared alongside area Republicans at a press conference to celebrate the vote.

“I’m thrilled today that the vote ended the way it did,” said San Marcos’ Republican Mayor Rebecca Jones at that gathering. “To watch the roads be prioritized alongside transit, it’s exciting because now we’ll be able to move the entire county around.”

Earlier at the meeting, Jones said she supported the amended budget because it will help facilitate not only the movement of the region’s residents and visitors, but also of economic goods.

“Transportation has changed. We are seeing now Uber, Amazon. We’re seeing lots of people shopping online and our shopping habits have changed substantially,” said Jones. “Those are some of the cars that need to get around this county. And if any of you are saying it needs to be all transit, and you buy from Amazon, shame on you. Shame of you for not thinking about what you’re actually contributing here.”

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, though, beat back against what she called a “constituent argument” proposal which will increase countywide vehicle miles traveled and thus, increase climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions. And she chided those behind the alternative budget proposal for not bringing the proposal to SANDAG’s staff for analysis before motioning for a vote.

A paper published by California State University-Northridge economics professor Kent Hymel in April in the journal Transport Policy, titled “If you build it, they will drive: Measuring induced demand for vehicle travel in urban areas,” concludes that expanding highways does not actually aid in traffic flow.

Melanie Curry, who writes for the pro-transit news website StreetsBlog, called the SANDAG vote its “first test” for the SANDAG board members on the 5 Big Moves.

“Some of them, at least, seem to have failed on that score,” wrote Curry. “Despite most of the public comments being in favor of the staff recommendation, the board’s comments made it clear that they believe they must continue building roads and facilitating vehicle traffic.”